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Jessica Lange- Don’t Go Changing

Updated: Dec 24, 2021

Jessica Lange in “Don’t Come Knocking”

Jessica Lange

Don’t Go Changing

by Jay S. Jacobs

It’s hard to believe after spending all of these years as one of America’s premier actresses, but when Jessica Lange started out, she was that rarest of creatures – a model who could actually act. In the early seventies she graced magazine covers and perfume ads, but Lange never liked posing, it was only a step on the ladder for Lange.

Of course, her acting career had a bit of a rocky start. She was hired as the female lead of producer Dino DiLaurentiis’ 1976 big-bucks remake of King Kong. That movie was pounded by the critics and some of the toughest knocks were reserved for the young starlet.

Ironically, the film is so far in the past with Lange that she is merely bemused by it. In fact, when she hears mention of the new 2006 version of the classic ape story, she good naturedly dismisses it. “I didn’t see it,” she says laughing. “I really don’t [have any desire to]. I have no curiosity about it.”

She did not work again for three years, when director/choreographer Bob Fosse took a chance on her in the splashy supporting role as the mysterious muse in his classic semi-autobiographical film All That Jazz. Jessica Lange hasn’t looked back since, she has since become respected enough to be lumped in with Streep, Keaton, Spacek and Field as the best actresses of her generation.

Lange’s ascendance was complete in 1982, when she received two Oscar nominations. Lange was up for Best Actress for her portrayal of tragic actress Frances Farmer in Frances. She also was nominated that same year for her role in a classic modern comedy, co-starring in the cross-dressing farce Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman. Tootsie was a troubled shoot. Literally dozens of writers worked on the screenplay. At the time, the movie was expected to be either a masterpiece or a calamity. Even in the midst of the action, Lange could not get a pulse on which way it would go in the end.

“You know, that was one of those that I had no idea how it was going to work out, to tell you the truth,” Lange admits. “You really didn’t have a sense of it on the set.  There was a lot going on between [director and co-star] Sydney [Pollack] and Dustin and all this other stuff. I think it was a credit to Sydney that he put together such a timeless [movie]… You know I was watching something a while ago and I couldn’t believe it. It was AFI’s [American Film Institute’s] Greatest Comedies. You know, when they do those lists [of the best films of a genre in history]? And [Tootsie] was like number two! It was after my favorite movie in the whole world, Some Like It Hot. Then Tootsie came in right after that. I thought, oh, Hallelujah!” She laughs heartily. “I finally did something right.”

Tootsie gave Lange her first Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. However, surprisingly, though Lange has taken on parts in a multitude of acclaimed dramas in the years since, like Sweet Dreams, Rob Roy, Men Don’t Leave, Music Box, Cape Fear, Everybody’s All-American and Blue Sky (for which she won Best Actress in 1995)Lange never again did a romantic comedy. Not that this was a plan, mind you. Lange said she would have welcomed the opportunity.

“I always wanted to [do more comic roles], but I never got offered them,” Lange admits. “Or if I was offered them, they didn’t come up to the standard of Tootsie. So, it really didn’t kind of elicit my time and energy.”

Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard in “Don’t Come Knocking”

While making Frances, Lange co-starred with Sam Shepard – the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who in recent years had also blazed a trail as a handsome and acclaimed actor in films like Days of Heaven and Resurrection. The two have been a couple ever since – one of the longest and most devoted relationships in modern Hollywood.

Lange and Shepard had worked together on several projects in the 80s. After Frances, they starred together in Country and Crimes of the Heart. The last time they worked together was when Shepard directed Lange in the 1988 drama Far North.

That is until now. Lange is co-starring with Shepard in Don’t Come Knocking – a film that was also written by Shepard as his reunion with acclaimed German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, The End of Violence.) Shepard and Wenders had also not worked together in two decades; they were the creative team behind the legendary indie film Paris, Texas with Harry Dean Stanton.

“Wim and Sam started talking about it – must be close on four years ago when they came up with the story and started writing,” Lange recalls. “I was aware that they were working on this. I was aware for a long time that they were writing a part that they wanted me to do. But until the script was finished, I didn’t see it.”

However, when the film was originally planned to be made, Lange could not work it into her schedule.

“Not only could she not fit it into her schedule,” explains director Wenders, “it was out of the question. Because both of their kids were in high school. The deal with Sam and Jessica was ever since they married and had kids one of them stayed home. Sam is a dedicated father. He never worked when Jessica was working. So, although Sam respected my idea, he said well, fat chance. I don’t think Jessica is going to accept it, because the kids were still in school. Finally, the good thing about in this case having to push [it back] twice [due to financing problems] – from 2002 to 2003 and then to 2004 – was that when we were finally able to make the film, finally I had my dream cast. 2004 was the first year that the two of them could consider being onscreen together. The moment Sam knew that Jessica actually [would] be able to play it; he re-wrote each and every line for her. He went through the entire script and re-wrote every line of dialogue.”

Jessica Lange in “Don’t Come Knocking”

It had been almost two decades since they worked together, but it was comfortable right away.

“It was real easy working with him,” Lange says, smiling. “In a way, because these two characters, even though they hadn’t seen each other for twenty years, [they] had this shared experience, this life together. I just found it real easy working with Sam.”

Don’t Come Knocking is a quirky and fascinating character study in the vein of Paris, Texas – informed by Shepard’s sharp ear for dialogue and Wender’s idiosyncratic and beautiful eye for visual splendor. In it, Shepard plays Howard Spence; an aging has-been movie star who decides has squandered his life on drink, young girls and bad movies. One day, while filming his latest Western potboiler in Arches National Park in Moab, Howard hits his breaking point and runs away from his life. While the filmmakers (cameo appearances by Tim Matheson, Julia Sweeney and George Kennedy) hire a bounty hunter (Tim Roth) to find their erstwhile star.

Howard ends up going back home – or close to home anyway, visiting Elko, Nevada to see his mother for the first time in almost thirty years. The mother is played with charming nuance and understanding by Eva Marie Saint.

“My one big regret in the film was that there were no scenes that I could play with Eva Marie Saint,” Lange says. “I asked for it. I hounded them. I said figure out some way, I just want to play a scene with this woman. But there was no way to make it work.”

Howard’s mother cares for her son and tries to help him come to terms with himself. She also reveals a secret; years ago, when Howard was working on his breakthrough role, he got a local girl pregnant. Now, he is the father of a grown son he never knew existed.

Howard decides that maybe he can get his life back on track if he finds them – mends fences with the woman that got away and meets his child. He goes back to Butte, Montana, looking to perhaps find a life that he was too busy and self-centered to explore. It is easy enough to find them – Doreen still works at the same diner (though, she proudly points out, she manages it now) and his son Earl is the singer at the local bar.

However, Howard finds his reunions to be different than he had pictured. Doreen seems wary to see him. Earl is outright hostile towards the man. When a mysterious girl (Sarah Polley) who seems to think Howard is also her father appears, things get even more complicated.

Jessica Lange and Sarah Polley in “Don’t Come Knocking”

“I think he’s just desperate,” Lange laughs. “I don’t think he’s really thinking about her. This is a lost man, you know? I mean he goes to see his mother. He goes back to his mother. Then she tells him he’s got a child somewhere. It’s that kind of clutching at straws, don’t you think? When he goes back there, I don’t think he has any intention of making a home with her or anything. It’s just; he’s a lost, lost soul.”

Lange had known Wenders through his long friendship and association with Shepard, but they had never worked together before. Still, Wenders trusted his leading lady to capture the feel of the story and the pulse of Doreen – the waitress who ended up never leaving the small rundown town and diner.

“He never really told me what his intentions were. I knew the script. I knew how he was shooting it. I knew visually what Wim is attracted to – kind of that Hopper-esque look, that desolation and loneliness. It wasn’t by chance he set this in Butte. It was a very deliberate look that he wanted. Just knowing the script and knowing Sam’s writing I guess it just kind of made itself evident.

“Look, she’s a small-town girl working in a café in Butte, Montana and a movie star comes to town,” she continues. “You know, it’s one of those location romances. He sweeps her off her feet. She kind of just falls crazy in love with him. Then he disappears.”

Doreen may not have left her home town or her job, but her life did go forward in all this time.

“I don’t think she was waiting for him, but I think her heart was broken,” Lange says. “I think there was a moment where she just kind of stopped in time. She’s still working in the restaurant. There was all that going on and yet she found a way to go on without any kind of bitterness or anger in her life. I really kind of liked the way that this character was drawn, that she was just getting along. There was no real anger at him. She didn’t let it ruin her life. I think there was a choice of not living her life as an angry woman or… So, in that way, when the explosion does come, it really is about her son rather than about her.”

The son was played by young actor Gabriel Mann (The Bourne Identity, The Life of David Gale) who was thrilled to be part of such a talented troupe. He’d long been a fan of Wenders and Shepard’s work. He found working with Lange a very comfortable experience.

“The thing about working with an actor like that is it’s easy,” Mann says about Lange. “It doesn’t matter what you have to play. Because, I just have to look at her. Looking at her face is like watching clouds move across the sky. So, you just watch it happening and you hopefully keep yourself open to what’s coming from her. And there you are…”

The story does not mirror Shepard’s own life as an aging actor, though, says Lange. It is not autobiographical at all. “No, but it certainly is in his realm of fathers and sons that he always writes about,” she says. “Although in this case it’s the father looking for the son – usually it’s the other way around. But no, not the particulars of this character.”

Sarah Polley and Jessica Lange in “Don’t Come Knocking”

Being involved with one of the great playwrights of the 20th Century would seem to be a fascinating ringside seat to the creative process, though Lange acknowledges that she is kept somewhat out of the loop in Shepard’s writing when it is still a work in progress.

“[I don’t see it] when he’s writing,” Lange admits. “But when we start playing it, yeah, then, obviously… Sam is very private about [his work] … in fact, he’s writing a play now and he’s probably about halfway through, but he won’t even tell me what it’s about yet.”

Lange also treasured the chance to finally get to work with Wenders, whom she had only met socially before. “I’d known Wim over the years, too, but not well. Obviously not like Sam does. They have had a relationship for 25 years, going back way before Paris, Texas, actually. But it was a very comfortable feeling. It was a great group of actors. Wim creates a wonderful milieu to work in. It’s a very comfortable set. So, it was a pleasure.

“He really is a poet in a way,” she says. “He has a kind of approach to things that is so outside the ordinary. It’s visually – I mean, I think Wings of Desire, that whole movie to me was like a long poem. It was so visually beautiful and so strange and kind of unsettling. The thing with Wim – and I think it’s because he came to filmmaking from painting, and if you look at his books on photography – is that he has such an extraordinary visual approach. And yet, he’s very good with actors. I think the cast that he put together for this film… I look at the acting and everyone is perfect in their part, you know? It was beautifully played by this group of actors.” 

Copyright ©2006 All rights reserved. Posted: March 17, 2006.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2006 Donata Wenders. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2006 Donata Wenders. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2006 Donata Wenders. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2006 Donata Wenders. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

#5 © 2006 Donata Wenders. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

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